Thinking of taking the kids to see Mount Rushmore on the next family vacation? Great, but don't stop there. South Dakota has far more to offer than a single monument, from craggy mountains to family-friendly national parks to urban escapes. In fact, it's one of the few states to hit the trifecta of family travel: South Dakota is scenic, crowd-free and affordable. So why aren't more visitors flocking to the state? They just haven't discovered its lesser-known charms yet. If you're yearning for an unexpected and unforgettable family trip, head to these three underrated kid-friendly areas across the state.
Tour the Black Hills Beyond Mount Rushmore
Most families access South Dakota's Black Hills through Rapid City, a fun urban destination in its own right. The Black Hills are just miles away from the city center, providing a playground filled with national forest, state parks, historic towns and tourist attractions. Start by driving forty miles northwest to scenic Deadwood, where you can enjoy a rustic retreat and learn about South Dakota's Wild West era by visiting the Days of '76 Museum, walking the historic main street and visiting the old-fashioned Saloon 10, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead over a game of cards.
In and around town, you'll find plenty of outdoor recreational activities to keep kids busy without busting your budget. The Michelson Trail weaves directly through town and proceeds throughout the Black Hills. Families can hike along its path or rent bicycles in summer and fall and snow machines or snowshoes in winter. And above town, Mount Roosevelt provides a fun, short hike to the Roosevelt Friendship Tower, built by famed town resident Seth Bullock for his friend President Teddy Roosevelt.
Within a few miles of Deadwood sits the town of Custer, adjacent to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park. Families can devote two to three days to touring the area, visiting the national monument and exploring the state park, which sprawls across more than 71,000 acres. Drive the Needles Highway to get a lay of the land before hiking in the park. Harney Peak, South Dakota's highest mountain, offers a challenge suitable for school-aged kids, with Badger Clark's one-mile loop as a good alternative. Reserve time to observe the herds of bison that still roam here. Eagle eyes will also spot mountain goats on the rugged mountain peaks of the park. Before leaving the Black Hills, stop in the adjacent town of Keystone for some touristy fun, including high ropes courses, zip lines and cowboy shows.
Where to stay: Plenty of roadside motel lodges with rustic cabins will thrill kids and remind parents of bygone eras of family travel. Consider bedding down at Rock Crest Lodge & Cabins in Custer if you're craving amenities like complimentary Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV and free breakfast, or bring a camper or RV to stay at any number of well-appointed RV parks.
Explore Badlands National Park
One of the most overlooked national parks is also one of the least crowded and most interesting parks our country has to offer. Badlands National Park is only a 75-mile drive east of Rapid City and offers vibrant and accessible geological and paleontological lessons for kids. The park is easily visited in a day or two, with multiple hiking options for families with kids of any age. Start at the visitor center, which gives a good overview of the park's unique geology and cultural history. Pick up a form to document any fossil finds (yes, they happen regularly). Next, drive the Badlands Loop Road, stopping to view sites at Door and Window trails, both short distances from the road. For a longer hike, tackle the Castle Trail on the plateau above the majority of the rock formations in this section of the park.
Where to stay: Return to Rapid City, checking out the fun urban vibe in the downtown core, and fun rustic spots like the Circle View Ranch, or backtrack only slightly to Wall, South Dakota, on I-90. You and the gang can't miss it, thanks to the multitudes of Wall Drug Store billboard signs along the interstate. By all means, stop and check out this roadside attraction. In fact, plan to spend at least a few hours.
Enjoy Prairie Life in De Smet
If you're traveling with Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, you'll want to plan your South Dakota vacation around De Smet, located about 100 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, in the eastern corner of the state. Here, you'll find not one, but two preserved homes from Ingalls' "Little House" series, including the home the family lived in during their time in De Smet and the cabin they inhabited while Ingalls wrote the autobiographical book, "By the Shores of Silver Lake." Both homes are run by a historic society and open for tours. Additionally, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society's Discovery Center offers hands-on activities to teach visitors about the time period Ingalls describes in her series. What's more, he Ingalls' Homestead offers a collection of replica buildings to explore, including a schoolhouse and family-friendly activities, like wagon rides and lessons in creating jump rope by bailing twine.
Where to stay: Reserve a tent, bunkhouse or covered wagon at the Homestead, or return to head to Sioux Falls to turn in for the night. And if you're looking for a place to grab a bite in Sioux Falls, Bob's on West 12th Street or Josiah's Coffeehouse on South Reid Street are excellent picks for families with delicious menu options that are sure to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
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